The FDA sent a warning letter to Horizon Air, saying it did not have suitable bathrooms for employees to serve ice with drinks or food. The company’s 76-seat airplanes do not have sinks for hand-washing.
Wash your hands. It’s an instruction that takes a bit of reminding for elementary-school children and commercial airlines alike, apparently.
The U.S. Food Drug Administration (FDA) last month warned Horizon Air, which is owned and operated by Alaska Air Group, to stop serving ice with drinks because the planes in its fleet of 52 Bombardier Q400 turboprop planes do not include hand-washing sinks in their bathrooms.
Without hand-washing facilities, the lavatories are not sufficient for employees to handle food and ice, the agency said in a tersely worded letter, and “can increase the potential spread of communicable disease.”
Roy Costa, a public-health consultant and trainer who writes about airline food safety, said it’s unusual not to have sinks on commercial airplanes.
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“People are in close contact. All it takes is one person with an infection and it can easily spread on an airplane,” he said. “Hand-washing is one of those things you can’t do without.”
The letter comes after several inspections last winter by the FDA, which has been corresponding for months with Horizon about the issue.
Horizon did fix other problems noted in an earlier assessment, the FDA acknowledged, but employees have continued serving drinks with ice.
“Directing your employees to wash their hands in the airport between flights or to use hand sanitizer does not meet the requirements for suitable lavatory facilities for food-handling employees. We recommend that you discontinue the use of ice and serve only food and beverages that are in closed containers,” the FDA wrote to Horizon.
Hand-washing dramatically reduces the number of people who get sick, and studies show hand sanitizers are not as effective, according to The Centers for Disease Control.
“If the person handling the ice is infected, and they haven’t washed their hands, that’s going to spread to the ice and eventually to the beverage. You’re talking microorganisms here, viruses that are extremely small and can be huge in number,” Costa said. “Without hand-washing, you don’t have any barrier at all.”
Sanitizers can be effective against bacteria, but for viruses, “they basically don’t work,” Costa said. “Hand-washing has always been the key thing to remove them. You can’t kill them very easily. They’re very resistant.”
FDA warning letters are reserved for what the agency considers to be significant violations of the law. The FDA gave Horizon 15 business days to respond, and could pursue legal action if Horizon doesn’t fix the issue.
Costa said he did not understand why the company didn’t fix the problem sooner.
“Why wait until you get warned by FDA? Spend the money, do the renovation, put a doggone sink in there and be done,” he said. “I just don’t get it.”
Alaska Air declined Wednesday to answer questions about the warning letter or its food-handling practices, but said it would address the problem.
“The safety and health of our customers and employees is our No. 1 priority. We are working with the FDA to revise our in-flight procedures to resolve its concerns. We plan to roll out more robust procedures on all Horizon flights next week,” a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.
Alaska Air followed up that statement Thursday with more specific details. Flight attendants will be required to sanitize their hands with what the company described as hospital-grade disinfectant and then immediately put on food-service gloves before pouring drinks.
The Horizon flights served by the Q400 can seat 76 passengers, and usually fly shorter routes in Western states.
Horizon offers beer, wine and sodas, and prepackaged snacks on its Q400 flights.
Correction: This article was altered on June 2, 2016. An earlier version referred to Alaska Air Group as Alaska Airlines.